Sunday, May 9, 2010

The last tree on earth

At the end of the ro-ro port in Bacolod lives the last tree on earth. This tree, really no more than a little scrubby shrub, pokes its defiantly green head above a rubbled landscape of concrete and rock: no other green thing, no colorful petal can be seen. A single foot could stomp it out. A mild flood could drown it or tear up its desperate roots. It bends in the sea breezes sweeping in from the ocean; supple it is, but slim – it is an emaciated, lonely sentinel for the four hundred thousand humans in the City of Smiles. But still it hangs on to its doubtful existence.

Or perhaps it doesn’t. Eighteen months ago it was a charming reminder of nature’s tenacity, but for all I know it has by now been swept away, crushed, toppled, desiccated, poisoned, burned or starved – as with the people it guarded, reality weighed heavy on its bowed head.

In the developed world, societies are finally beginning to brush off the coal dust, fan away the fumes and take their first tentative steps away from the obliging and deadly bits of the planet that have offered themselves up in immolation for the progress of our race. By now, the momentum of the green movement is probably sufficient to ensure renewable energy a significant and permanent place in the machinery of the world. Whether that’s enough to salvage the situation is another question.

Regardless, it is clear that environmental awareness is far greater in many countries than in years past – at least with regard to visceral waste and tangible destruction. Rivers are being restored; smog in metros is dissipating; the very real benefits of developing with nature, rather than entombing it in concrete or tossing it into the furnace, are becoming evident. Putting aside the gorilla-in-the-room of climate change, life in many places around the globe will probably get pleasanter, at least superficially, in the decades to come. Clear blue skies: fresh, clean water.

Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, CA

None of that applies to the “developing world” – a moniker I hesitate to use, since it implies forward momentum and refutes the stagnation or decline happening in places like the Philippines. It’s in countries like this, not in stable nations with functional infrastructure already in place, where converting to environmentally-friendly measures seems to offer the biggest obstacles.

Accurate environmental information is rare here – fitting for a country that has plundered its own resources and been plundered by others for so many years. Current (but not for much longer) president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was recently gifted with an environmental accolade, the Teddy Roosevelt International Conservation Award, for her “work” in protecting marine resources in the Coral Triangle. That is, to be blunt, a farce of epic proportions.

Yet in rural settings, “green” is actually and surprisingly an institutional word – the sangguniang barangay (the local board of officials) is often tasked with implementing environmental programs, and a “Green Brigade” is a common project of the sangguniang kabataan (the barangay youth board). But like so many aspects of policy in the Philippines, these measures are usually only for show. The Green Brigade is a more self-important beautification committee – which would be good, except in my experience they rarely beautify anything except their own CVs.

Another common measure, one I was at first surprised to see so prevalent in the Philippines, is waste management in the form of trash segregation. Even small municipalities will often have separate disposal facilities for recyclable and landfill trash. Whether this program is actually followed, I can’t say from personal experience. What I can say is that the means of trash disposal are woefully inadequate – good luck finding a usable garbage can that isn’t simply an open container open to the dispersing wind. The result, in nearly every place I’ve visited in the country, is a huge amount of garbage littering the ground and waterways. This isn’t just in Manila or other cities, where the amount of trash probably simply overwhelms the system; it’s almost totally pervasive. Canals used for channeling rainwater are regularly choked with refuse, and colorful discarded cartons, papers and other scraps are stomped underfoot until the ground has a deviously festive aspect.

Perhaps the biggest issue isn’t the lack of infrastructure, but the lack of education. My coworkers were confused when they saw me regulating my water use while washing dishes… in the midst of a major drought. I regularly skewer my kids with stern looks when they nonchalantly toss a candy wrapper on the ground when a trash can is only meters away, but they’re just kids being kids; when adults do the same thing – when they toss cigarette butts in the streets and throw plastic wrappers out the sides of moving jeeps – it’s evident that there is a deeper problem at play here.

Venice Beach, CA

I struggle to be culturally aware with regard to this issue. To me, littering is something that is self-evidently damaging, but it’s easy to forget that I have been taught such for over two decades. To someone who hasn’t, maybe throwing that garbage off the dock might not seem like a big deal – after all, that person will probably never see it again; problem solved. I’m not an environmental volunteer and it would be presumptive for me to make accusations against people whose culture is unfamiliar. However, it’s clear that great strides need to be taken to save the natural beauty and resources of the Philippines.

There is one great issue that could either complicate or (ironically) aid this reform, and that is the poverty inherent in great swathes of the country. As linked to a lack of education, poverty is certainly one of the causes of a dearth of environmental stewardship. As poverty is reduced (if it is reduced), environmentalism will hopefully become the mainstream topic it has become elsewhere.

However, what’s vital is that the society and culture grow with environmentalism. One of the tragedies of the United States was that our ascent to the top of the global economy was largely accomplished independently of concern for the earth itself. The result, which continues to echo today, was economic vibrancy and environmental disaster.

Since environmentalism is better-understood and certainly better-respected today, countries that are still developing have the opportunity to build their various infrastructures with the help of green technology. Nope, it’s not fair, after the western world has already reaped the benefits of easy progress without accountability. But it is necessary. If there is any justice in the world (and with environmental talks progressing – or regressing – as they have, sometimes that seems doubtful), wealthy nations will play a major role in helping developing regions modernize sustainably. Pipe dreams, perhaps; the trick is to convince people that it’s in everyone’s best interest to protect the only habitat we’ve got.

And this should not be a case of the rich stepping in with gift bags for the poor despondent. Rich countries have a lot to learn from the Philippines and other nations – perhaps not in terms of policy, but in individual resource management.

It seems contradictory, but there are environmental lessons to be had from Filipinos. They are ingeniously inventive when resources are limited. I believe this usually stems from necessity, not awareness of environmental issues, but anyone who has watched a team of Filipinos cobble together a tent complex from tarps, bamboo and rocks, as they did for our girls’ leadership camp last week, has to be impressed with their resourcefulness.

Granada, Bacolod, Philippines

A while back I bemoaned a lack of creativity in Filipino art, but the same does not apply in matters like this: I’m consistently impressed with the ability of Filipinos to identify nonstandard ways to solve practical problems. At this point, sometimes I don’t even try to help out in these situations, because I know they’ll find a much more solid, and cheaper, solution than I ever could. Why? Because they live in a world where thrift and ingenuity matter on an individual level. Many people can’t just buy their way out of a difficult situation – they can only use the things on hand. What if this kind of intelligence became commonplace in developed countries? The level of waste could be staggeringly reduced.

The situation in the Philippines epitomizes my view of the worldwide environmental situation: I have great faith in the ability of individuals and concerned groups to identify and invent brilliant ways to reduce waste, cut emissions, conserve vital habitats and generally live harmoniously with nature, with the understanding that we’re just renting a room or two in the big apartment. What I have less faith in is the willingness of the people with power, those with the means to make the environmental movement matter on a global scale – not just governments but corporations and even influential individuals – to invite some hardships in with what they see as “only” a painfully earned, long-term payoff.

The solutions are there – every kid in sub-Saharan rural Africa cobbling together a wind turbine to power lights for his unelectrified hut is a testament to that, and every Filipino who whips together a workable tent with found materials confirms it. The rich world needs to look at these examples with due humility and respect, understand that we all have lessons to learn from each other, and most importantly, recognize that with a mutual effort flowers can return to a concrete earth, and that the last tree in the world might have life running through it yet.

Malibu, CA

1 comment:

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